Tracy Fessenden: Religion Around Billie Holiday

Steve Provizer By

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Religion Around Billie Holiday
Tracy Fessenden
280 pages
ISBN: #9780271080956
Cambridge University Press

This is one of the most unusual books about a jazz figure that I've encountered in a long time. The premise, as spelled out in this interview with author Fessenden, is fascinating. She is the Steve and Margaret Forster Professor and interim Director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Her previous book is Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, on Princeton University Press and she is Editor of the journal Religion and American Culture, published by Cambridge University Press.

Q: What initial intimations did you have about Billie Holiday and her singing that made you think this kind of investigation would be worthwhile?

Tracy Fessenden: Truthfully, I knew I'd be at work on the book for years, and I wanted to write about someone I knew I would never, ever grow tired of. The premise of the "Religion Around" series is that we can learn a great deal about any iconic historical figure by apprehending not only his or her own religious or spiritual life, whatever that may have been, but also the religious currents around that person and the ways he or she moved with or against them. That Billie Holiday isn't someone we readily think of as a religious figure makes her a great test case for that idea. She didn't have the big church sound we associate with, say, Bessie Smith or Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin, because unlike them she didn't come up in the great Afro-Protestant musical cultures that gave us gospel and blues. Yet she herself has become a kind of sacred figure. And her sound is as alive today as it ever was. It seemed worthwhile to me to think about how the spiritual currents she navigated might have shaped her life and her sound and what she and others made of them.

Religion Around Billie Holiday is not a brief for Holiday's piety or impiety, her importance to religious history, or her prophetic voice for civil rights. It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious. There's the slyly ersatz spiritual "God Bless the Child"; a bootleg version of "My Yiddishe Momme" that showed up on a 2010 pressing of Jewish classics; and the rumor of "O Come All Ye Faithful" on a flimsy laminate disk she made in a coin-operated Voice-O-Graph booth, now a collector's holy grail. She copyrighted the song "Preacher Boy" for her erstwhile minister husband, the brutish Louis McKay, but never bothered to record it. Religion Around Billie Holiday focuses not on Holiday's religious practice or expression but rather on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form. These include the urban, pre—Vatican II Catholicism that undertook to reform her; the theologies, politics, spaces, and sounds of the Afro-Protestant churches to which she never belonged; the vigilante faith that passed for justice in the gallant South; the vaporous, shape-shifting Jewishness of the American songbook; the gravitational pull of her contemporaries' eclectic religious orbits; and the mythic charge of her own luminous iconicity.

Q: Billie was such a strong character and yet, there were many perceptions and descriptions of her, as if people wanted to project identities on her for their own reasons. Do you agree with this analysis and, if so, why do you think this was the case?

TF: Apart from Lady Sings the Blues, her memoir by as-told-to author William Dufty, Billie Holiday was not a self-chronicler. She didn't keep a diary or give many interviews. The fullest record she left of her inner life and her experiences is in her music. It's not surprising that those who are attracted to Billie Holiday would find their own desires and struggles mirrored there. Farah Jasmine Griffin's wonderful book about Billie Holiday, If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery, is premised on that observation. What's noteworthy to me is not that her admirers saw some part of themselves, some way of seeing, reflected back to them in Billie Holiday, but that she had this effect on so many people, including so many great artists who found in her a kindred spirit. Langston Hughes and Charles Henri Ford wrote poetry about her. So did Elizabeth Bishop, somewhat resignedly, after Bishop's companion, the heiress Louise Crane, fell madly in love with Holiday. William Faulkner and Marianne Moore were both drawn to her. Jack Kerouac wanted to build a novel around her, and Orson Welles wanted to put her in his films. When she was only nineteen Duke Ellington gave her the lone singing role in his 1935 film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. Composer Mary Lou Williams wrote a part of her Zodiac Suite for her. What these artists saw in Holiday was a fellow artist and an innovator, someone who, as Williams put it, "made sounds and things you've never heard before." Barack Obama said that Billie Holiday was a formative influence on him because he heard in her voice a "willingness to endure," and in enduring to "make music that wasn't there before."

Q: You write about the concept of Catholic "fugitive souls," including Jack Kerouac, Jim Carroll, Martin Scorsese and Bruce Springsteen. Please describe what you mean by this appellation and why it's important in this context.

TF: "Fugitive soul" is James Fisher's gorgeous term for the temperament or style he associates with a midcentury "Catholic lost generation." This generation's relationship to Catholicism falls well short of either orthodoxy or dogged rebellion, says Fisher, yet it remains steeped nevertheless in a certain religious imagination. The traits or temperaments that define the Catholic lost generation, for Fisher, include comradeship with (and fierce loyalty to) an unpromising cohort of hustlers, dreamers, and thieves; a worldly spirit of acceptance bordering on fatalist resignation; a "preferential option" for the marginalized and broken that expresses itself not in campaigns for change but in anonymous gestures of hospitality and compassion; and an abiding willingness to forfeit personal autonomy for the "consoling promise of self-dissolution," chemical or spiritual, and the forms of community that offer it. Fisher's examples make the Catholic lost generation sound like a boys' club, and certainly a particular style of masculinity was a part of it. But women's names might be added to his list. Dorothy Day and Flannery O'Connor fit his description of the Catholic lost generation in some respects, and Billie Holiday in nearly all.

Q: One of the main goals of the book is to make clear that Holiday was an artist who deliberately and painstakingly crafted her work and not some kind of a gifted primitive. This point is clearly made. But, an associated theme is, for me at least, difficult to grasp. On pg 173, you caution against imagining a Billie Holiday who can be pulled cleanly away from this Billie Holiday's performance of Billie Holiday." The implication being that there's no clear line between the act of singing and the art of singing. Is that what you were driving at, or is it something else?

TF: What I mean here is simply that Billie Holiday's exquisite performance of suffering, in songs like "My Man" or "Gloomy Sunday" or certainly "Strange Fruit," ought not to be taken to mean that her suffering was only and entirely an act. Acting the part of the woman who suffered abuse gave her some control, perhaps, over the reality of abuse. But it doesn't mean that it wasn't her lot.

Q: You describe the song "God Bless the Child" as "a mock spiritual based on a mock scripture..." Can you talk about that song and how it fits into the flow of the book?

TF: The original sheet music for the song, for which Holiday shares songwriting credit with Arthur Herzog, says that "God Bless' the Child," a "swing-spiritual," is "based on the authentic proverb 'god blessed the child that's got his own.' " But "God Bless the Child" is generically neither spiritual nor swing, no authentic proverb relays its title, and the Bible never preaches its news, although the New Testament parable of the talents offers a distant approximation. Musicians have sometimes used "the languages and practices of 'religion,' " Jason Bivins suggests, in ways that "confronted or evaded or jazzed the languages and practices of authenticity"—including the assumption that African American musical art is always rooted in the spirituals of the church, or that it comes naturally, or that it will necessarily be redemptive. Holiday's "God Bless the Child" might be understood in this sense as a kind of trickster hymn that "jazzed" the discourse of spiritual authenticity that surrounded and constrained her. According to Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, the song was really about hustling money; she wrote "God Bless the Child" to "gas the Duchess"—her mother, Sadie—who'd said no when Billie wanted cash from the till of the after-hours club Sadie operated from the Harlem apartment she and Billie shared, even though Billie had financed the whole enterprise by way of the stream of favors she received from Louise Crane. Louise Crane, the poet Elizabeth Bishop's long-term companion, came from a family that literally printed money, since the Crane stationery company had supplied the U.S. Treasury with its rag paper since the Hayes administration. Crane was well known to Holiday's producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, who moved in the same circles—Hammond was a Vanderbilt on his mother's side. Hammond came between Crane and Holiday by bringing news of their affair to Crane's family of bluebloods, and by putting an end to her long-running New York City gig at Café Society, the Greenwich Village nightclub. A year earlier, in 1938, Hammond had dismissed Holiday from the lineup of the famous Carnegie Hall concert he produced, a concert of African-American musical performance he called "From Spirituals to Swing." Hammond would say he fired Holiday because of her drug use; she would say she walked away from the concert because he nickeled and dimed her. So "God Bless the Child" was a bit of a snub to John Hammond, a way of letting him know that she could look out for herself, that she had no shortage of wealthy patrons, and that she knew more about spirituals and swing than Hammond would ever fathom. "God Bless the Child" remains among the most covered and beloved of Holiday's songs—even Hammond allowed that it might be "one of the very few for which Billie Holiday will always be remembered¬¬"—and has entered the sacred performance repertories of gospel choirs, black and white, throughout the world.

Q: Holiday's use of substances is a huge subject, but let's just look as the interesting point you make about the difference in Holiday's behavior when she was drinking and smoking pot and when she was using heroin, which you say could "compel her submission."
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